By contributor
updated 12/14/2005 12:41:52 PM ET 2005-12-14T17:41:52

WASHINGTON – President George W. Bush has spoken thousands of words in recent weeks in an effort to re-sell the Iraq war to Americans as Iraqis go to the polls. But one photo-op from Bush’s sales campaign spoke louder than all the words: a picture with Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum in it.

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You have to know the background to understand why that was so significant. Santorum, a combative, conservative Republican from Pittsburgh, is fighting for survival in what is certain to be the most closely watched Senate race in the country next year. Right now, he is running roughly 12 points behind Democrat Bob Casey, Jr., of Scranton, the state treasurer –- a pro-gun, pro-life figure in the manner of his late father, who was a popular governor.

Someone who is NOT popular in Pennsylvania is the president. Economic policy has a lot to do with that, but so does uncertainty over the war. A key battleground in the state is Cambria County, represented by feisty Pentagon-buddy Rep. Jack Murtha, a Democrat and ex-marine who has become the most effective foe of Bush’s Iraq strategy.

This is scary terrain for Santorum, a member of the Senate GOP leadership and a favorite of the White House.

So people noticed that, in November, when Bush launched his current sales campaign with a speech at an Army post in Wilkes-Barre, Santorum was nowhere to be seen. He was miles away in Philly. He had a previous commitment to speak to a veterans’ organization there, his aides explained. No big deal.

Well, it was a big deal. The president was setting off on a crucial bid to restate his rationale for the war, his strategy for success, and his criteria for bringing home the troops, a disproportionate number of whom come from the deer-hunting hills of PA. And where, the wise guys wanted to know, was his ally, Santorum? Does that mean Bush is “toxic” to Republicans running for reelection?

That’s the kind of question that this White House fears the most. It’s important to understand that George W. Bush and Karl Rove never have had the goal of winning over the bulk of independent voters, let alone self-identified Democrats, on ANY issue – let alone an issue as controversial as the war in Iraq. Rather, the Bush-Rove aim always is to create or keep a critical mass of operational support. And that, in turn, means keeping the “base” -– the Republican Party -– together and in line. With both chambers of Congress in GOP hands, with the “Mainstream Media” divided into warring camps, the Bush White House can pursue its my-way-or-the-highway theory of leadership.

But the key is keeping the GOP base together. And that’s what the Philly event was all about. One reason why Bush went to Philadelphia last week to speak to the World Affairs Council was history. White House speechwriters wanted a suitable backdrop for discussing the difficulties of forging a democracy. But the other reason was political: the chance to get (read require) Santorum in the picture. Since it was Philadelphia, Sen. Arlen Specter would want to be there, giving a sense of formality to the occasion. And the august, non-partisan Council gave additional cover: this was an “official” event, not a campaign rally. Then there was the biggest inducement of all: a ride on Air Force One.

Just in case Santorum had had any reluctance to come aboard, there was another factor for him to consider. Being “independent” of the White House can have its costs. If Santorum is going to win reelection, it’s going to take out-of-state help -– and, more specifically, money. Millions already are pouring in from across the country to help Santorum. Can Rove affect the volume of that flow from conservative, activist sources? Maybe just a little bit….

So, as the door of Air Force One swung open, there was a smiling and waving president. A few steps behind him, smiling a little sheepishly: the junior senator from Pennsylvania. They didn’t walk down the gangway to the tarmac arm-in-arm. But it was close enough to suit the political purpose at hand.

Now comes the question: will they stand together next fall? And if they are, will they be smiling?

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